Returning to her Roots: American Indian Student Association President Margarita Orozco ‘21 speaks to indigenous impact on campus, goals for organization

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ADITHI RAMAKRISHNAN / THE FLAT HAT

The Taino tribe, an indigenous people hailing from the Caribbean, was the first to meet Christopher Columbus when he arrived in Hispaniola. Margarita Orozco ’21, whose family has Puerto Rican, Colombian and indigenous roots, identifies strongly with her Taino side and recalls the consequences Columbus’ arrival had on her people.

“Since they were the first people to meet Christopher Columbus, they were the first to lose the most,” Orozco said. “There are efforts to regain the language and regain some practices again, but it’s been difficult.”

As a child, Orozco’s grandmother made sure she was aware of her indigenous history as well as the truth of what happened to the Taino people.

“As a kid, my grandmother made me read Christopher Columbus’ journals,” Orozco said. “She was like, ‘I know they celebrate Christopher Columbus Day at school, but he was very against our people. He was the first enemy of our people.’”

Orozco credits her grandmother and mother with helping her stay in touch with her indigenous roots. Growing up, her grandmother taught her about indigenous foods and practices and emphasized the native influence in her life, celebrating the mix of cultures.

“She really ingrained in me these things that I’m going to carry for the rest of my life,” Orozco said. “She really helped me be proud of my culture and know the history.”

Being both indigenous and Latina, Orozco initially struggled to feel comfortable with both of her identities simultaneously, particularly due to a lack of understanding from others.

“Being Hispanic is an ethnicity, but if you identify as a different race within the Hispanic ethnicity, I feel like sometimes they don’t fully understand,” Orozco said. “Like, if I’m with someone who is a white Latina, they don’t fully understand why I have such close ties to my indigenous roots and other parts of my culture.”

Home was one place that Orozco always felt that her mixed identity was embraced. Over the summer, she visited her dad’s home and family in Colombia and exposed herself to a side of her identity she had not learned much about as a child.

“I did not grow up with Colombian culture whatsoever; it was mostly just Puerto Rican,” Orozco said. “Getting to go to Colombia, I really got to see a different side of things. My grandmother on that side of my family was adopted from a tribe as well — I never got to meet her, but we have tribal roots on both sides of my family.”

Orozco’s trip to Colombia allowed her to experience a celebration of indigenous culture in harmony with her Hispanic identity.

“Just going to Colombia, I really got to see how much indigenous culture is appreciated in the overall Colombian culture, and it validated me more,” Orozco said. “So, what I’m doing is fine. My identity is totally cool, and I should not let anyone make me feel weird about it.”

Orozco is the president of the College of William and Mary’s American Indian Student Association. She joined the group as a freshman to get back in touch with her culture on campus.

“Before coming to William and Mary, I moved around a lot as a kid, and I wasn’t with my grandparents anymore, so I didn’t really have my cultural roots as much,” Orozco said. “Coming here I was looking forward to exploring the things I love — my culture — and I stumbled across AISA.”

In AISA, Orozco ended up finding a welcoming and safe place on campus, as well as some of her closest friends.

“My freshman year, they were just so kind to me, it was like a family,” Orozco said. “They really made my experience here so much better.”

As president, Orozco plays a major role in planning the organization’s annual spring powwow, an event she looks forward to every year.

“We get people from different tribes — last year, we had someone from New Jersey and people all the way from South Carolina,” Orozco said. “Everyone is always so nice, and it’s always really cool to see them interact with William and Mary students.”

One of Orozco’s goals for the year is to increase visibility for AISA on campus. The organization previously had larger upperclassman membership but has gotten smaller over the years due to graduating classes. Orozco emphasizes that anyone is welcome to join the organization, regardless of their relationship with indigenous culture.

“You don’t have to have any indigenous ties at all to be part of this club — I identify with my indigenous side, but I wasn’t raised completely with indigenous culture; I was raised in a culture that is very mixed,” Orozco said. “I just appreciate that side a lot, and if you just have an appreciation for the culture and the history, I just want people to know that they are always welcome.”

There is a great degree of diversity and variation throughout indigenous culture; Orozco wishes that this nuance was more effectively communicated and appreciated.

“We are still here, and we don’t have to look a certain way,” Orozco said. “There are so many different tribes throughout North and South America, and we do not have the same experience.”

Orozco strives for indigenous issues to receive more awareness, both on campus and on a larger scale.

“I wish people kept us more in the forefront of their minds,” Orozco said. “I think when people think of racial relations in the United States, they think of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, but Native Americans are often pushed to the side, and quite literally. I wish that people brought us more into the conversation. I want people to know about us.”

During Orozco’s freshman year, she recalls inviting her friends to attend AISA’s indigenous Thanksgiving event, encouraging them to go with her. A mixed response from one of her friends particularly stood out to her.

“My friend was like, ‘I feel bad,’ and I’m like, ‘Why do you feel bad about this?’ and she’s like, ‘Because of what my people did to your people,’” Orozco said. “I don’t know if more people have that kind of feeling and that’s why they hold back on native culture or native awareness.”

Orozco elaborated on the unproductivity of guilt when it comes to indigenous issues, especially in the present day.

“I feel like it’s just very problematic; it’s something that happened so long ago, and I feel like guilt is not the right emotion to have with this,” Orozco said. “It’s more like, ‘Let’s try to make this situation better for both of us.’ I wish I’d gotten more support from others instead of the feelings of shame and guilt, especially because that happened so long ago.”

According to Orozco, it is more important for non-indigenous individuals to address past injustices with support in the present rather than continuing to live in history.

“Their people were able to move on from it, and unfortunately my community is still facing backlash from that event that happened so long ago,” Orozco said. “So, if anything, it’s that you should help us out. You should support us.”

Last spring, Orozco, along with members of AISA, met with President Katherine Rowe to discuss both the history of Native Americans at the College and the institution’s current relationship with native students.

“We talked about the Brafferton School, which used to be an Indian school back in the day, and that’s actually where her office is now,” Orozco said. “We were talking to her about how there needs to be more recognition of that. For incoming native students, that would make them feel very welcomed to see that William and Mary had this history with Native Americans, but now look what they’ve done to overcome that and to really welcome us.”

Orozco works as a confidential advocate at the Haven and tries to support the Latin American Student Association and UndocuTribe as much as she can. She also has been a member of improv group Trippin’ on Brix since her freshman year.

“I like to think I’m good at thinking on my feet, and I really like my group, and they’re very supportive,” Orozco said. “At first, I was doing it because I used to do improv and theater a lot growing up … but I really stayed for the people, because they’re just great, and I always have a good time with them.”

During the group’s spring semester senior show, Orozco’s friend Louise Ferall ’19 wrote a unique sketch that was so out of left field, Orozco was the only person ready to perform it with her.

“It took place in a laundromat, I was playing this weird old rich lady, and she was a crazy old poor lady, and then we just … fight,” Orozco said. “It involved a lot of laundry puns.”

While the group was worried about the reception of the sketch beforehand, its quirky concept and the combination of Orozco and Ferall made it a success.

Orozco is deeply appreciative of her group of friends on campus, as well as the ability to be part of a cultural group. She feels that the multicultural organization experience at the College provides a special sense of community.

“I really love being part of a cultural group at William and Mary, because I get to interact with the other groups,” Orozco said. “Everyone is so awesome and supportive. We can all kind of relate to each other, one way or another. I really love that.”